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A party to organize our side
“To achieve socialism, the most militant workers must be organized into a revolutionary socialist party. The ISO is committed to playing a role in laying the foundations for such a party. We aim to build an independent socialist organization, rooted in workplaces, schools and neighborhoods that, in fighting today’s struggles, also wins larger numbers to socialism.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
“Many good socialists and radicals question the need for a party at all,” wrote the late British socialist and journalist Paul Foot in his book Why You Should Be a Socialist. “They say: ‘We’ve been sold out by so many parties already, Communist Parties, Labor Parties of all descriptions. Can’t we just look after ourselves without a party?’”
Do we need a political party?
When people in the United States think of political parties, they think chiefly, if not exclusively, of the Democratic and Republican Parties, and in relation to these, they see politics purely as tedious electoral campaigns and vacuous mudslinging between two organizations that represent a narrow band of interests.
So when socialists come along and say that we want to organize a party, it can be a turnoff. This negative idea of political parties was at one time also reinforced by the experience of the Stalinized Communist Parties of the world—which were top-down, command-structured organizations that blindly supported Stalin’s bureaucratic state capitalism, which bore little or no resemblance to the socialism from below of Karl Marx.
In Europe, the tepid reformism—and later, enthusiastic support for the free market—of the social-democratic parties also helped alienate young radicals from socialist organization and led them to draw anarchist conclusions that “politics” of any kind is a waste of time. “Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty,” wrote Lenin, “for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement.”
Then there are the sectarian socialist grouplets, consisting of tiny numbers of arrogant and out-of-touch people who believe themselves to be the “vanguard,” claim to have all the answers and treat everyone around them (to the extent that anyone is around them) with contempt.
If that’s what anyone means when they talk about socialist organization, who needs it?
As discussed earlier, capitalism cannot be gotten rid of merely by electing the right people into office. But politics isn’t only elections. The struggle against capitalism is a political struggle, in the sense that its goal is to dismantle the capitalist state and replace it with institutions of workers’ power.
The great radical labor organization of the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World, for example, believed that the socialist commonwealth could be achieved solely through workers’ economic organization and struggle. By combining into “one big union” and organizing the general strike, the working class could reorganize industry from the bottom up. The problem with this idea is that it failed to address the question of political power. If the state exists in order to protect the interests of the capitalists, then it cannot be ignored; it must be confronted. The working class must combine economic and political struggle in order to challenge capitalism.
Moreover, if the working class limits itself to purely economic struggle, it will be incapable of becoming the leading force in a struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression. As Lenin wrote in his famous booklet What Is To Be Done?:
“The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Anyone who has ever gotten involved in even the smallest struggle knows that without organization, little can be accomplished. An individual can’t change much, no matter how committed he or she is to changing the world. To take on an employer in a single workplace, to protest a fare hike or to oppose a war, organization is necessary. To take on the entire edifice of capitalist power obviously requires organization of another order.
The most obvious case for organization is that the other side is very organized and has the whole machinery of the state and lots of resources at its disposal. The ruling class will literally stop at nothing to protect its wealth and privilege. To effectively challenge it, our side must be well organized and capable of mobilizing millions of people.
What kind of organization?
The question is: What kind of organization? We have emphasized in our commentary that genuine Marxism is distinguished from other forms of socialism in its emphasis on the idea that workers and oppressed people must liberate themselves—that without the active, mass involvement of millions in their own liberation, liberation is not possible. Some anarchists stop there and think they’ve exhausted the question. Yet such an emphasis does not rule out—in fact it necessitates—strong leadership and organization.
The term “vanguard” has been maligned because of its association with tiny sects who proclaim themselves as such, when in fact they lead nothing and no one.
In a very general sense, however, vanguard merely means the “advanced guard” of any struggle or movement. Every movement has one, in the sense that no social struggle happens without some identifiable smaller group within the larger whole taking the initiative to initiate, sustain and advance the struggle. Of course, what constitutes that vanguard is a constantly shifting and developing as the movement changes.
When Marxists use the term, they don’t mean a group of experts that directs the struggle from a control room. They don’t mean a group of people separate from and outside the struggle. By vanguard, they mean the best-organized, most militant and politically conscious workers. An organized vanguard such as this cannot be proclaimed—it has to be created.
The necessity of leadership in struggle reflects the fact that people become radical at different paces and at different times, and because at any given moment, there are always some who are more class-conscious, radical and willing to act than others. In this sense, working-class consciousness is uneven. Secondly, working-class consciousness is mixed, in the sense that the same worker can hold both radical and backward ideas at the same time. Mixed ideas are challenged in struggle, because the experience of solidarity tends to push against the backward ideas. Unevenness is also overcome through struggle, because in struggle workers tend to be inspired and follow the lead of the most advanced sections of the class when it is in motion, and because, once in struggle, workers are capable of making very fast strides in consciousness and confidence. The role of a revolutionary vanguard is to overcome both the mixed and uneven consciousness of the class by engaging together in struggle, and at the same time winning workers to a more consistent, revolutionary perspective.
There are some left tendencies that believe the radicalized minority can substitute itself for the mass and act on its behalf. Such were the politics of guerrilla struggle, for example. For Marxists, the recognition of real differences in consciousness and in abilities is not done in order to sanctify those differences, but to overcome them—to raise the level of consciousness and initiative of all workers. As the British Marxist Duncan Hallas once wrote:
“The essence of elitism is the assertion that the observable differences in abilities, consciousness and experience are rooted in unalterable genetic or social conditions and that the mass of the people are incapable of self-government now or in the future. Rejection of the elitist position implies that the observed differences are wholly or partly attributable to causes that can be changed. It does not mean denial of the differences themselves.”
How divisions are overcome
What accounts for these differences in consciousness, and therefore, of the necessity for organized leadership?
The dull compulsion of life under capitalism inculcates in workers a sense of inertia—that little can change. This is an idea that is reinforced by the prevailing propaganda at school and in the media, which tells workers that they are not smart enough to run things and asks them to blame other workers—immigrants, women, Blacks, etc.—for their problems.
Yet, as we’ve seen, capitalism’s tendency to grind workers down also forces them to use their collective strength to resist. In acts of resistance, workers begin to challenge the ruling ideas that have kept them atomized and weak.
A struggle can teach a worker the meaning of solidarity. But he or she may still hold negative ideas about the rights of gays and lesbians. The struggle creates the conditions in which racist, sexist or homophobic ideas that keep workers divided can be broken down.
An organization that unites the most radical elements—those whose experience has led them to reject capitalism and want to fight for an alternative—facilitates the process whereby the workers who have not yet been won to these ideas can be more easily convinced (in the course of struggle) to become champions of the rights of the oppressed, the most consistent advocates of complete solidarity and the most convinced supporters of a socialist alternative.
The point is to begin to gather together isolated and local militants and connect them with others across the country. Such an organization becomes a place to compare notes on the struggle, to learn from different struggles, and to generalize from them about what works and what doesn’t. Such an organization, to be effective, must be a part of the struggle, seeking ways to make it more effective, and at the same time somewhat ahead of it—pointing toward the future. As Marx says in the Manifesto, “The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” The communists, he wrote, are “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others.”
Such an organization can, through a national political newspaper and other publications, begin to create out of a disparate set of local struggles a national movement, capable both of learning from, and teaching, the working class. Such an organization helps to gather together and sift through the experiences of past struggles in the history of the working class and socialist movements, generalize from that experience, and use it to help guide us in our present struggles.
It is in this sense that the revolutionary party has been called the “memory of the working class.”
We look to the experience of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in Russia because it was the first and only workers’ party in history that was able to successfully challenge capitalism. Lenin’s party was not a bureaucratic structure that went around bossing Russian workers. The party was a part of the Russian working class—its best part.
N.N. Sukhanov—by no means a Bolshevik supporter in 1917, but who witnessed the party at close quarters in the days leading up to the October Revolution—observed the close interconnectedness between the party and the working class:
“The Bolsheviks were working stubbornly and without letup. They were among the masses, at the factory benches, every day without a pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day. For the masses, they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks. The had become the sole hope...The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks.”
What Sukhanov seemed not to understand is that the Bolsheviks themselves were workers—leaders on the ground in the day-to-day battles. They did not parachute in from somewhere else. The Bolshevik vanguard was not an isolated elite, but organized working-class militants tempered by shared experience and shared politics developed through interaction with their fellow workers.
The Leninist conception of a “vanguard” is best understood simply as a “leading body.” To really be a leading body, it cannot be proclaimed or imposed from above, and it cannot be built by standing apart from the working class and holding up revolutionary ideas to which it expects the working class, at the right moment, to suddenly flock.
Nothing remotely like the Bolshevik Party today exists. It has to be built in practice, through propaganda work, and in the course of struggles over “partial” demands.
Socialists aim to create a new society. But we cannot do so simply by wishing it to be, or by waiting with folded arms until everybody else “gets it.” We aim to unite in solidarity with all the myriad partial struggles against the system, whether it is a battle for higher wages or better healthcare, resistance to police brutality, or fighting for reproductive rights.
Struggle changes consciousness, gives workers confidence in themselves and their ability to change things. In the process of fighting together with others who have not yet decided to become socialists, we are able not only to advance the struggle and win concessions, but we are able to win wider layers of people to the socialist project—the fight for a world without exploitation or oppression.